Not In Our Stars
Not in Our Stars. Jefferson P. Swycaffer
Original Publication: 1984
Current Availability: Out of Print/Hardcopy (used)
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in August of 2009, and in the September 2011 issue of the downloadable magazine.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Thus far I’ve mainly discussed books that influenced Traveller, but now I’m turning the page, and looking at what may be the first book that Traveller influenced—even if it’s not set in the familiar Third Imperium.
This sixth review covers Not in Our Stars, the first story of the Concordat by Jefferson P. Swycaffer.
About the Story
Not in Our Stars is a story set in the Concordat, an interstellar empire that is both aged and wide-spread. On one of its flanks lies a section of space called the Outreach, once loyal to the Concordat, but now taken over by raiders and in open rebellion as a result.
This is the background onto which Admiral Michael Devon strides. He is a hero of the Sonallan War, but for all the wrong reasons. He disobeyed orders and flaunted authority, but in the process managed to win victory. Unfortunately, those same traits may bring tragedy in the Outreach when Devon’s new mission begins to suggest hints of a conspiracy within the Concordat itself.
Genre & Style
Not in Our Stars is first and foremost naval military SF. It centers on Admiral Devon, his officers, his fleet of ships, and one fighter pilot. There are marines too, but their role is mostly glossed over.
As military SF, Not in Our Stars is adequate. Swycaffer shows off some interesting elements of the genre, such as the power of starship position related to a gravity well and the long delays in responses in space. Some of his battles rise above their innate dryness and are somewhat exciting. But they never are better than average.
Swycaffer also tries to present Not in Our Stars as a Shakespearian tragedy and here he falls far short.
His biggest problems is his characters. The protagonist, Devon, is not only unlikeable, but he reacts in largely irrational ways. He’s a complete jerk to most of his subordinates, and you never really understand why. Beyond Devon, no character gets enough characterization to ever come into solid focus. The only character I came even close to caring about was the fighter pilot, and I was so thrown by a really late and unforeshadowed revelation about him, that I ultimately have to conclude that the person I liked wasn’t the same person that the author was writing.
The plot really doesn’t hang together either. The first half of the book, centering on Devon’s battles in the Outreach, has absolutely no drama because it’s entirely obvious that Devon’s fleet totally outclasses the raiders. Then, when the plot starts to turn toward a possible conspiracy in the Concordat, the intuitive jumps are entirely unbelievable while the plot events leading this action are clearly largely contrived.
Swycaffer’s writing is never actually bad. At worst, it’s dry at times (but not always). It’s the plots and characters built upon it which are weak, particularly when trying to use them as part of an epic tragedy.
Overall, I can only give Not in Our Stars a “2” out of “5” for Style and a “3” out of “5” for Substance.
Though I’m somewhat down on this book, I still found it interesting enough to read and saw enough potential that I’ll be reading later volumes in this series, and probably reviewing them as part of this series.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
Not in Our Stars was arguably the first-ever Traveller novel. It states clearly on the dedication page:
Several of the concepts and nomenclatures used in this story are from the games Imperium and Traveller, published by Game Designers' Workshop and designed by Marc W. Miller, to whom all my thanks for his kind permission regarding this use.
And the universe of Not in Our Stars is clearly very similar to a Traveller RPG universe. Fleets of ships use Jumpspace to slowly move across sectors of space. Communication can go no faster than these ships, and so lines of command are tricky. There are clear distinctions between naval and marine units, and you can really get an impression of how they might work together. There’s even some discussion of scout ships among the naval fleets.
Though the sources I’ve read suggest that Swycaffer wrote about his own Traveller games, set in his own Traveller universe, it’s actually not that far from the official Traveller universe (at least not in this first outing). The Sonallans and the recent war on the Sonallan Rim sound a lot like the Solomani and the Imperium’s (not quite so) recent wars on the Solomani Rim (in the Gateway Era). The Outreach, where this book is set, on the opposite side of the Concordat from the Sonallan Rim sounds a lot like the Outrim Void, a similarly fractured space in the Traveller universe, just rimward of the Spinward Marches. (It’s called the Trojan Reach or Trojan Reaches in later supplements.)
There’s only one way in which Not in Our Stars varies from the Official Traveller Universe in any notable way: it doesn’t get Jumpspace quite right. Ships can bounce in and out of it with ease and don’t seem to worry about refueling every time they exit. Perhaps Jumpspace just wasn’t as well defined in the early 1980s when this book was written, but this surely isn’t the Jumpspace of the modern Traveller universe.
Though I found Not in Our Stars mediocre as a piece of fiction, I think it’s pretty good as a source to help you start thinking about how the Traveller universe works. I find its concepts of space warfare and the military background of the “Concordat” very in-tune with Traveller, and so suggest it in particular for GMs and players interested in those topics.
Given that Mongoose just put out Alien Module 1: Aslan, this book's depiction of a raider-filled Outrim Void/Outreach might be yet another reason to pick up Swycaffer’s first book.
Though it’s been out of print for ages, Not in Our Stars is pretty easy to find cheaply on the ’net.
Not in Our Stars is an almost-average book that’s large in aspirations but clearly an author’s first attempt at a novel. Its most interesting aspect is that it uses the physics and social ideas of a Traveller universe, even though the game isn’t set in the Traveller universe. Though it’s not a great casual read, it is quite good as an inspirational read for Traveller military adventures.